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Teens Don’t Know How To Do What?

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There has been a great deal of worry in the U.S. about the state of literacy and education of the young. The great schools with the highest standards still attract and educate. Many other schools spoon-feed vocational courses into lethargic kids. However, new studies that suggest teenagers in Britain and the United States do not know how to use condoms are disconcerting.

An interesting Fox News article written in 2002 by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, "Teen Sex and Media Hype," makes a good point about the infantilization of teens in our society. He wrote of teens coddled to the point where they had neither to accept responsibilities nor to act in constructive paths. Perhaps, he mused, if they were, they would behave in the role of citizens and be less like the traditionally irresponsible leisure classes "… with all the vices that have historically attended leisure classes."

He also noted that treating them as infants in growing and sexual bodies keeps them from developing the "base of judgment and self-respect" that allows for appropriate decision-making. Appropriate decisions imply deciding when they are ready for sex (always a difficult choice given the flooded hormonal circuits of the adolescent) and learning about and taking responsible precautions.

The forces against science and knowledge and even a group who are opposed to education about sex (hard to imagine, isn't it?) continue to dominate school boards or try to. More than a few times they have managed to ban books and work their censorship incantations over library choices.

It is not a slight lessening of intellectual interest in young people that is the problem. This week's report from the U.K. proves that the world faces a real problem of dumbness (or is it numb-ness?).

USA Today published the article "Report: Teenagers Often Shun Condoms" early in the month. It reported on a study appearing from Child Trends, a not-for-profit agency in Washington, D.C. that those teens who are sexually active do not use condoms regularly. This activity puts them in danger of acquiring STDs, passing them on to their partners, and creating pregnancies.

Almost fifty percent of the male teens who were sexually active during the year before the survey said they regularly employed a condom. Only 28% of the girls reported that one had been used.

Their good news was that

[e]fforts to promote contraceptive use may be having an effect. The teen birth rate has been declining: in 2004 it was 41.2 births per 1,000 girls ages 15-19, down from a peak of 61.8 births per 1,000 in 1991, says Child Trends' Kerry Franzetta, lead author of the report.

MedicineNet reported on a study of 1373 British teenagers done by London's National Children's Bureau. Get ready — the title of the article was "Many Teens Use Condoms Incorrectly". This is a hard one to believe, but read it I did. We know teens have sex (I did and it was fun). We know those who have sex should use condoms to protect against STDs and unwanted pregnancies. How could anyone have guessed they couldn't figure out what to do with a rubber cylinder and a – dare I write it – penis? How many teenagers does it take to stick it on before the fun begins and take it off after it's over? Quite a few, it seems.

In the London study (published in The Journal of Sexually Transmitted Infections) the 1373 were interviewed and, where possible, their diaries were examined. About half reported that they had had vaginal intercourse and two-thirds of those said they used a condom the last time they had sex.

Does that mean they are protected against sexually transmitted diseases? Not necessarily. Hatherall and colleagues found that 6% of the kids (who had reported that they used a condom the last time they had sex) said they put the condom on after vaginal penetration — and 6% said they continued vaginal penetration after condom removal.

An interesting and worthwhile website is Cool Nurse.  In a section on sexuality, the authors say that "Despite our collective wish that teenagers postpone sexual activity until adulthood, the reality is that more than half of them will not wait." This is hardly a new phenomenon in the growth process. This is not an American problem even though "…we do have the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of adolescent pregnancies among the world’s industrial countries." The most important distinction between the U.S. and the other "advanced" countries (where teens are at least as sexually active as are ours) is that the U.S. has failed in the provision of information and access these adolescents need to protect themselves in the battle against STDs (including AIDS) and unwanted pregnancies.

As a result, teenagers rarely use any form of contraception during their first episode of sexual activity and it usually takes about a year before they use any effective birth control method. It is not surprising, therefore, that most teenage pregnancies occur within the first six months after teens begin to have intercourse. Currently, about one million teens become pregnant each year in the United States.

There is room to worry when the arts are ignored and the sciences shunned. Playing video games instead of reading Dickens is sad. Not being attracted to books, libraries, serious film, creative acts and burning with the desire to learn all there is to know is depressing.

However, consider the intellectual gap that includes not knowing how to use a condom. This is a dangerous place to park your dunce cap. I don't have a teenager and I am too old to start one now. But obviously there is something missing in communication at home, in school, and in the media. You can tell them "Don't" but they have to have ready access to information, and the ability and desire to learn in order to know how to protect themselves.

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  • Funny that you mentioned not having teens as you come across as a well-educated parent. It’s not funny how many parents don’t take this kind of thing seriously. As the mother of three (two in college) I’ve not been in any mood for stds or pregnancies. As a person, I appreciate your voice. As a parent, I appreciate your concern for all the children everywhere.

  • Howard, this is interesting, but I think it can’t be entirely accurate. Teenagers have sex because it’s a natural biological urge, some can and will wait, but it goes strongly against their human nature.

    I don’t think lack of education is the reason many don’t take contraception and STD avoidance seriously. I had sex education in high school, I had parents who warned me my life would be OVER if I got pregnant, all of my friends and I watched the condom-on-a-banana demonstration in health class. And yet, most of my friends had unprotected sex and one time or another. I would have too, but my boyfriend was older (and apparently much smarter) than I was and he just took care of that. God knows I wouldn’t have thought of it… even though I knew better.

    I think that young teenage feeling of invincibility and general recklessness and tendency not to thoroughly think through the consequences of one’s actions is more to blame than lack of information.

  • Staci. How could anyone argue with your comment? It is cogent and, undoubtedly, true. Still, no matter how much the “natural biological urge” of raging hormonal storms can dominate I still think that the more knowledge, education and accessibility to contraceptives; the more chance there will be that at least one of the people (of any age or sex) will remember what to do.

    Diana is a parent thinking and worrying about her children. As she says, she has not been “in the mood for any stds or pregnancies”. Obviously she has done her discussing and teaching well and can worry more about “… all the children everywhere.”

    I wrote this remembering my youth — even though I, like Staci, wasn’t always quite as responsible as I thought I would/should be. Those hormonal storms put Katrina to shame.

  • staci, the soundest reasoning for better, earlier, more frequent sex education is substantiated by your comment that “my boyfriend was older (and apparently much smarter) than I was and he just took care of that“…

    the key word here is “smarter”…for whatever reason, he had acquired an education that surpassed your own, meaning your sex education was not adequate…
    taking chances with one’s own body and life is not smart…given that you walked away from sex-ed with little sense of self-protection means that those who educated you failed to teach you anything of substance…

    fearlessness can be effectively coupled with reality to give children a greater sense of their limits and vulnerability…those who wouldn’t wear condoms for lack of a (better) education will look both ways before they cross the street…why one and not the other? effective education…

    sex education in the united states is a joke and a misnomer…these programs speak nothing to children of how it might feel, physically and emotionally, to give of oneself in this way…my own children came away from their middle school class having been taught nothing about pubic lice, physical conditioning, or even the basics such as the role a woman’s orgasm plays in conception…

    effecive sex education should give a person a sense of something fantastic to look forward to, a sound sense of their body and the body of others, while at the same time, and just as strongly, invoking the instinct to self-protect…anything less is nothing but mechanics 101…

  • Diana, you make a great point about crossing the street. I think it’s because we all learn that VERY early on, when we’re still being more “conditioned” rather than “taught.” Perhaps that point could be used to advocate for earlier sex ed, I’d never really thought of it that way before.

    And Howard I definitely agree with you that knowledge, education and access is vitally important and didn’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t bother with it.

    For every 5 or 6 kids I knew who had unprotected sex, I knew at least one who was very very responsible in that way. But I think it’s more of a personality/individual thing. In the same way some kids will smoke and some won’t, some will experiment with drugs, some won’t. Some will be cautious and mature when deciding when, whether and how to engage in sex, and some won’t.

  • carolina

    i think you should put some pictures